SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 1,800 of Utah’s total COVID-19 cases have happened in the past week, which is causing some concern for state health officials who noted Wednesday the increase in cases is happening across the state.
Nine of Utah’s 13 local health departments have seen 15% increases in the number of cases over the past week, and it could be related to the easing of coronavirus restrictions that started at the beginning of May, Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said. She said community spread numbers have slightly risen and the number of people contracting COVID-19 at work has risen.
"This past week, we’ve had a sharp spike in cases, and it’s not explained easily by a single outbreak or an increase in testing," she said. "This is a statewide trend."
Utah has reported 10,497 total COVID-19 cases since mid-March. The majority of Utah’s cases are no longer active, as an estimated 6,501 Utahns have fully recovered from the disease and another 117 people have died from it. But 1,791 of Utah’s cases, or 17%, have been reported since Thursday — the largest spike the health department has seen since the pandemic began. That also represents 46% of the current estimated active cases, or cases that have been reported in the past three weeks.
The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend that most of the state move to a "smart green" phase later this week that would further loosen restrictions. It’s still up to Gov. Gary Herbert's office to make the change. Dunn pushed back against that idea Wednesday.
"Based on the data we have seen in the past week, we don't recommend any jurisdiction in the state going to green," she said.
To put it into perspective, Utah had six cases on March 13, when Herbert issued the "soft closure" of public schools. The state didn’t reach 1,000 cases until April 2, and it surpassed 1,700 cases on April 7. Utah has reported at least 200 new cases every day since Thursday, including its largest daily increase since the pandemic began, 343 cases, on Friday. The state reported more than 1,000 cases in a four-day span between Thursday and Sunday alone.
The state has maintained about an 8% hospitalization rate, but Dunn said that number usually lags at least a week behind when a new case is identified. So far, the state reports 108 people are currently hospitalized of the 829 people who have since the pandemic began. Given that lag, the state is expecting a jump in hospitalizations as early as next week.
Why there’s a jump and where it’s happening
Dunn said it’s possible the recent rise is a start to the "acceleration phase," which would mean a continual climb in cases over the next few weeks. Some of it was expected because leaders thought there might be some jumps in cases with restrictions being slowly lifted.
"It’s not as if the simple act of loosening restrictions that causes cases to increase; it’s what we do in society and our actions that can cause COVID-19 to spread more readily," Dunn explained. "Loosening restrictions does not mean the risk of spread is decreasing."
She added that the majority of cases continue to be spread within a household but noted that community spread — which is when there’s no clear reason for how someone ended up with the coronavirus — is "starting to jump just a little bit," and workplace cases are also rising.
"The vast majority of outbreaks are happening in our workplaces," she continued. "What’s really increasing the cases of COVID are similar to what’s happening across the country. It’s people being in close contact with each other indoors for a prolonged period of time. That environment is really conducive for the spread of COVID-19. So as we start to open parts of our economy and society, people will be working or in social settings where that environment is more likely."
KSL.com has kept a daily log of COVID-19 cases in Utah since the pandemic began. It’s based on the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths reported statewide and those provided by Utah’s 13 local health departments. Tracking this data helps show the general areas where cases are being reported.
According to the department’s data, the largest spike since Memorial Day, May 25, happened within the Bear River Health Department, which services Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties. According to the state health department, that health district has received 203 new cases since May 25 and now has 305 cases. That’s close to a 200% increase.
The Southwest Health Department has the second-highest spike at 63% since Memorial Day. The department has reported 193 new cases during that time span and now has 498 cases since the pandemic began. All but the TriCounty and Summit health departments had at least 10% increases; although, in the case of the Southeast Utah Health Department that’s a jump of six cases from May 25 to a total of 26, as of Wednesday.
Even the Salt Lake Health Department has experienced a noticeable rise since Memorial Day. The county has reported 1,088 new cases in the past 10 days, which is a 24% increase to 5,603 total cases.
How to slow the spread
With a possibility that COVID-19 may continue to spread in the next few weeks, state health officials plan to keep up contact tracing efforts so they can alert people who may be at risk and slow the spread of the disease. They also plan to ensure COVID-19 testing is easily available for Utahns.
The state health department recommends following its guidelines for stopping the spread of COVID-19. Those guidelines include:
- Avoid close contact with others when going to stores, restaurants or other public places and wear a face covering when you are in those situations.
- Stay home if you have any sign of illness, no matter how mild, and contact your health care provider to see if you should be tested for COVID-19
- If public health officials have asked you to self-quarantine due to COVID-19, follow their guidance
Dunn further explained that while face coverings are important, they are not a replacement for social distancing and keeping at least 6 feet from others while outside.
"Masks do not eliminate the risk of spread due to COVID-19," she said. "They have been shown to reduce the spread, but the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing."